Territory and Progress: Manifesting Regional Consciousness in Southern Brazil


This project is originally an ethnographic examination of the forms of political memory manifested in the work of formal collectives and informal networks of artisans in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil. Settled beginning in the nineteenth century by predominantly German and Italian immigrants, the south of Brazil - of which Porto Alegre is the emblematic capital - has over the past two centuries produced numerous associations that mark the region racially, economically, and infrastructurally as the “most European” in Brazil. What regional and historical dynamics do the artisans in question occupy in the present? What kinds of political identities crystallize in Porto Alegre's current moment? I traveled to Brazil in May 2017 to examine a number of archival and ethnographic primary sources related to the history of the state Rio Grande do Sul, with the specific objective of drawing out a number of overarching historical and contemporary themes related specifically to the racialized aspects of regional identity formation. To accomplish this, I relied on historical methods for combing through the extensive historical monographs and archival collections housed at the Moysés Vellinho Historical Archive, as well as on a number of visual-ethnographic approaches to public aesthetic structures of heightened symbolic value in Porto Alegre such as monuments and buildings. Two crucial insights emerged from my research. First, my engagement with the primary sources and secondary historical literature revealed that regional identity is intimately related to traditions that connect family and land through labor and particular notions of work, which can be seen during the nineteenth century in the Brazilian Empire's treatment of German immigrants as settlers in a civilizing mission for the untamed southern lands. Secondly, I noticed that these ways in which labor, land, and civilizational progress conjoin in 19th-century Brazilian immigration policy are not so different in kind from those racialized lexicons that were emerging during the colonial period in other lands and within other communities and that they are in fact consistent with the pseudoscientific ideologies that constructed the biological notion of race. These two lessons are consequential because they indicate that gaúcho (southern Brazilian) identity is no less "marked," historically conditioned, or implicated in violent colonial scenarios than indigenous or Black/Afro-Brazilian identity. Given the economic crisis which Porto Alegre and the state of Rio Grande do Sul currently face, vocabularies related to land, labor, and progress are reemerging in the political arena. In this context, it becomes all the more crucial to be able to think about the historical resonances of certain markers so as to fully decode the political issues they pose and the ideological anxieties they betray.

Jesús Gutiérrez
Publication date: 
August 18, 2017
Publication type: 
Student Research